The year that was 2017: A review
The year 2017 was full of surprises — both good and bad — in government, politics, social issues, world events and calamities.
Both the Philippines and the United States had presidents who became controversial because of their respective leadership styles. Disasters (natural and manmade) also changed people’s lives forever, and continued to push for discussions about climate change, violence and gun control.
The Asian Journal looks back at the past year’s most pressing news it has covered through this yearend review.
Build, Build, Build and tourism projects: PH’s golden age of infrastructure
The Philippines took the headlines when it hosted the ASEAN events in 2017 and it had the opportunity to showcase the various infrastructure projects that it has undertaken as part of the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” campaign.
The administration’s economic managers continued what they started in 2016 and are looking forward to the three-year rolling infrastructure program (TRIP) of the government which has a P3.6 trillion from 2018 to 2020 which they are hoping would usher in what is touted as the golden age of infrastructure.
All of these, including the upgrade of numerous facilities in the country so that more tourists are able to come and visit the variou s islands, are part of “Dutertenomics”. For 2018, funding of P1.13 trillion would be allocated for projects under TRIP which would cover infrastructure projects for transportation, water resources, sewerage and sanitation, flood management, solid waste management, maritime, social infrastructure, energy, information communications technology and others.
The “Build, Build, Build” team of the Duterte administration includes Secretary Mark Villar of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, Bases Conversion and Development Authority president Vince Dizon and NEDA chief Ernesto Pernia, among others. Together, they announced the administration’s major projects at an investment and infrastructure forum held in Manila last April.
As far as the Department of Tourism is concerned on the other hand, it is about getting the tourists from around the world visit the country. It also launched the Bring Home A Friend project in 2017 in order to entice more visitors as well as enticing all Filipinos to become tourism ambassadors themselves.
The year began with the country on a high after hosting Miss Universe for the third time in December 2016, and it ended, quite aptly, with Miss Universe 2017 Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters of South Africa and Miss Universe 2016 Iris Mittenaere of France visiting the Philippines last month.
Along with the candidates of Canada, China, Great Britain, India, Italy, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and the U.S., the Miss Universe titlists had a tour a tour around Rizal Park and the walled city of Intramuros and went on to visit Batanes, Bohol and Camiguin.
Tourism Secretary Teo said they chose the three provinces because these were not part of the destinations visited by the Miss Universe candidates during the 2016 pageant in Manila.
Tourism boost: PH islands among best in the world
Philippine tourism got another boost since the country was recognized yet again for having the best islands in the world by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler. This, despite the country’s various tourism promotion hullaballoos of the government. After all, the Philippine islands’ are just so stunning that no controversy could ever prevent tourist from coming in the country’s attractive islands.
Boracay, Cebu, and Palawan were ranked as the top three best islands in the world, according to Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards 2017. Boracay was ranked first in the survey, while Cebu and Palawan placed second and third, respectively. The three Philippine islands bested some popular destinations such as Mallorca and Ibiza in Spain; Cayman Islands; Mauritius; Mykonos and Santorini in Greece; and Bali, Indonesia.
Palawan is home to popular tourist destinations like Puerto Princesa and El Nido. Palawan’s capital Puerto Princesa is known for being the gateway for tours of the famous Underground River. One of the river’s distinguishing features, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is that it emerges directly into the sea, and its lower portion is subject to tidal influences. UNESCO also emphasized the role of the Underground River as habitat for biodiversity conservation. The site contains a full ‘ridge-to-reef’ ecosystem and has some of the most important rainforests in Asia.
El Nido, meanwhile, is considered as the to-go place for those who want to go island- and lagoon-hopping. Coron, northern part of mainland Palawan, is popular for its wreck diving spots. Boracay Island, on the other hand, is known all the world over for its unique, powdery white sand. Boracay saw its tourism spike to a record high of 1.7 million visitors, as well as numerous new developments, including a new mall which houses the island’s first cinema. Cebu on the other hand, was picked by the Department of Tourism as a model for sustainable tourism development in September 2017. The program that aims to build capacity and capability of the industry in the Philippines. The program shall strengthen Cebu’s competitiveness as a sustainable tourism model in the following areas: a) Business Tourism in Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events (BTMICE), and b) Expanding Business Tourism by integrating leisure products such as Cultural and Heritage Tourism and Eco-tourism. (Jennifer Soriano)
PH hosts ASEAN Summit with Trump, Duterte meeting in person for first time
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had his first bilateral meeting with United States President Donald Trump at the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on November 13 in Manila.
U.S. politicians had urged Trump to confront Duterte on the drug war, but it was unclear whether the two leaders discussed the controversial campaign during their first meeting, as Malacañang and White House gave contrasting statements. According to Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque, the issue of human rights “was not brought up” during their talk, while White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders claimed that human rights “briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.”
Earlier on November 8, Duterte, who’s known for issuing expletive responses to critics of his drug war, said he was prepared to tell Trump to “lay off” if he raised the issue of human rights during their bilateral meeting.
Prior to their meeting, Trump hailed his “great relationship” with Duterte, saying he “really enjoyed” being in the Philippines. Both leaders also lauded the “enduring” alliance between the Philippines and the United States, which they said were “built on a strong foundation of shared values, sacrifices, and history.”
With the Philippines as this year’s chair, Malacañang said it considers the country’s hosting of the 31st ASEAN Summit a “tremendous success.” During summits and sideline meetings, world leaders discussed hot topics from economic integration to security issues and territorial disputes. Among the centerpiece of the Philippines’ chairmanship include the beginning of negotiations between China and ASEAN countries for a code of conduct in the highly disputed South China Sea, as well as the signing of signing of a free trade agreement (FTA) between Hongkong and ASEAN countries. In his meeting with Duterte, Trump also agreed to consider signing an FTA with the Philippines. (Dana M. Sioson)
Duterte tops TIME’s most influential poll
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s popularity reached the whole world when Time Magazine announced that he topped the 100 most influential people poll on April 2017.
In a survey where Time Magazine has asked its readers who should be included in this years’ TIME 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential people, Duterte received 5 percent of “yes” votes in the online poll, ranking well ahead of all other global political leaders. Accordingly, the Philippine president consistently topped the survey which ran from March 24 to April 16, 2017.
Duterte bested the charming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Pope Francis, Bill Gates, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the said survey. The four each received 3 percent of “yes” votes. United States President Donald Trump, meanwhile, only received 2 percent of the vote, same with Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel. There were 114 pre-determined personalities included in the survey ranging from politics to the arts and culture.
Duterte’s bloody war against illegal drugs has received international attention, in addition to his widely-covered insults to various foreign leaders who goes against his way of running his country. Analysts and critics commented that the recognition was not clear if Duterte was chosen as a positive influence. (Jennifer Soriano)
Duterte admin ends year with landmark tax reform
The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) is the first package of the tax program envisioned by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, which seeks to correct a number of deficiencies in the tax system to make it simpler, fairer, and more efficient. TRAIN plans to reduce personal income tax rate and increase excise taxes on petroleum products, automobiles, sugar-sweetened beverages, and tobacco. The value-added (VAT) tax base will also be expanded in a bid to benefit small businesses. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said the tax increases will provide a steady revenue stream for the government’s Build Build Build infrastructure program, which is set to reach P9 trillion over the medium term.
The Senate voted 17-1 to pass the tax package on its final reading in December. Senate Bill No. 1592, the chamber’s version of the proposed law, was sponsored by Senator Juan Edgardo Angara. According to him, 60 percent of the incremental revenues will go to infrastructure programs, 27 percent will be allocated to social protection programs including the unconditional cash transfer to the poorest 10 million Filipino families and health, nutrition, and anti-hunger programs, while 13 percent will be allocated to military modernization programs.
The TRAIN bill, implemented on January 1, 2018, is expected to generate P130 billion. (Ritchel Mendiola)
PH’s EJKs, drug war continue
Despite outcry and condemnation from within the Philippines and around the world, the Duterte administration claimed that its campaign against illegal drugs was “hugely successful” in 2017.
In its yearend report, Malacañang said authorities conducted 79,193 anti-drug operations and were able to arrest 118,287 individuals as of November 27, 2017. It also recorded a total of 3,967 “drug personalities” who died in anti-drug operations during the same period.
On the other hand, human rights groups, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have repeatedly condemned Duterte’s “brutal” drug war, citing deaths of around 12,000 individuals, including children. According to AI, more than 50 children have died in “a wave of unlawful killings” in the Philippines. Critics, even Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo herself, claimed the existence of extrajudicial killings in the country despite the repeated denial of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
In October, Duterte ordered the PNP out of the drug war amid public protest over alleged police abuses and killings of suspects—including teenagers like 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, who was killed during a drug war operation in Caloocan City. Police claimed that Delos Santos violently resisted arrest, but witnesses and forensic reports stated otherwise. During the first week of December, the president, however, brought the PNP back in his drug war.
Duterte’s drug war earned him the 2017’s “Person of the Year” title, an annual recognition given by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to an individual who “has done the most in the world to advance organized criminal activity and corruption.”
“While [Duterte] is not your typical corrupt leader, he has empowered corruption in an innovative way. His death squads have allegedly focused on criminals but, in fact, are less discriminating,” Drew Sullivan, editor for OCCRP and one of the judges for selection, wrote. (Dana Sioson)
Martial law declared in Mindanao amid Marawi crisis
Under Proclamation No. 216, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the entire Mindanao on May 23, 2017 after the Islamic State (IS)-inspired Maute terrorist group launched a brazen attack on Marawi City, Lanao del Sur. Duterte’s 60-day proclamation was originally set to expire in June 22, but Congress first extended it until the end of 2017.
The fighting between terrorists and government forces lasted for five months, resulting to deaths of at least 847 rebels, 163 government troopers and 47 civilians. On October 16, the Defense Department confirmed the deaths of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and Maute group leader Omar Maute. The government declared Marawi crisis over in October 23, and has since shifted its focus in rehabilitating the war-torn city.
Despite announcing the city’s liberation from the Maute rebels, Duterte asked for another martial law extension in Mindanao for the “total eradication” of terrorist groups and their supporters. On December 13, Congress approved the Duterte’s bid to retain martial law until December 31, 2018—a move questioned by opposition lawmakers. On December 27, the House of Representatives’ so-called “Magnificent Seven” filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of the second martial law extension, saying there is there is “no actual rebellion” in Mindanao. (Dana Sioson)
Dengvaxia vaccine controversy
A dengue vaccine intended to protect thousands of children from the disease may have put all their lives at risk. The Philippines was the first Asian country to approve the sale of the world’s first-ever dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, manufactured by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur. A whopping P3.5 billion was allocated by the government to buy vaccines that will be administered to 9-year-old students in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.
The school-based immunization program led by then-Health Secretary Janette Garin was launched in April 2016, under the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III, despite the risks it could pose to Filipinos since studies on its safety were still being conducted that time, causing health experts to raise concerns. Around 800,000 children have been immunized ever since. Issues about the vaccine’s efficacy, safety, cost-efficacy, and alleged anomalies during the procurement process have surfaced from then.
On November 29, 2017, Sanofi Pasteur issued a warning against its own vaccine, which is a huge blow to the vaccination program in the country as it is already more than a year into implementation. Sanofi claimed that new analysis of six years worth of data revealed Dengvaxia could lead to more cases of severe disease when administered to a person who has never been infected. Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III suspended the program, saying the DOH will closely monitor the health of all the immunized children in the next five years. Meanwhile, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee began its probe into the dengue vaccine controversy. Aquino, Garin, former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, and former Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. now face graft charges over the dengue vaccine program implemented during their term. (Ritchel Mendiola)
Marcos’ protest against vice presidential race results gains ground
On the eve of Vice President Leni Robredo’s oath-taking in June 2016, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. claimed that there had been massive cheating in the polls and claimed that the vice presidency was taken from him. This led to Marcos filing an election protest versus Robredo before the Supreme Court (SC) sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), wherein he contested that the results in 27 cities and provinces, covering 39,221 clustered precincts which were composed of 132,446 established precincts. Robredo, meanwhile, filed a counter-protest, asking the SC to junk Marcos’ protest since the change in the hash code did not affect the election results. Her camp also argued that Marcos’ camp did not specify how the alleged cheating occurred in the first place, failing to show evidence of cheating in the Mindanao provinces where he wanted the votes nullified.
On January 2017, Marcos’ lawyer urged the PET to move forward with the election protest, setting a preliminary conference wherein issues will be simplified. Marcos’ protest was declared sufficient in form and substance then, on February 2017, and the PET denied Robredo’s appeal to junk the protest. Due to this, Robredo filed a motion for reconsideration on her denied appeal, which Marcos’ camp claimed was a way to delay the proceedings. A fee of P66 million for Marcos and P15.43 million for Robredo were ordered as service fees for the contested precincts, which both paid before their respective deadlines.
Marcos’ preliminary conference was reset on July 11, 2017 and on the same day, the PET ordered the creation of a panel of commissioners over the matters of the case. Marcos submitted 8,000 names in his list of proposed witnesses of alleged electoral fraud in the three ARMM provinces. The decryption and printing of the ballot images for Marcos’ three pilot provinces of Camarines Sur, Iloilo, and Negros Oriental began on October 23 but was deferred by PET on November 7. The recount of votes will begin on February 2018. (Ritchel Mendiola)
The year of impeachment: Bautista, Sereno and Morales
Three top officials of the country, who were appointees of former President Benigno Aquino III, were subjected to impeachment claims almost simultaneously.
In late August 2017, three legislators endorsed an impeachment complaint against Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista for the betrayal of public trust and the culpable violation of the Constitution over allegations of ill-gotten wealth. The complaints were sacked right away for being insufficient in either form or substance. However, the House of Representatives overruled the committee’s decision, impeaching Bautista just before Congress took a break in October.
On August 30, lawyer Lorenzo Gadon filed an impeachment case against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, accusing the latter of culpable violations of the Constitution, betrayal of public trust and other high crimes. This was endorsed by 25 legislators of the House. Sereno, who decried the decision of the House Justice Committee to disallow her lawyers the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against her, opted not to attend the impeachment hearings. The committee has found sufficiency in form and substance and in grounds the impeachment complaint against Sereno and is now determining the existence of probable cause and decide whether or not to file the case in the Senate. Hearings will resume on January 15, 2018, with more justices expected to testify.
Just before the sessions for the year ended, Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) filed an impeachment against Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. However, since the complaint failed to get an endorsement from any members of Congress, it was not considered filed but was merely received and noted by the House of Representatives’ secretary general. Morales, who is set to retire in July 2018, has earlier said that she is not worried about any impeachment complaint. (Jennifer Soriano)